Toronto-based designer Sean Brown made a splash in 2020 with rugs inspired by classic CDs that you might have come across while scrolling through Instagram.
In just a few years, Curves, which started with an event at a Toronto gallery, has grown into a contemporary homeware brand that offers products inspired by hip-hop — a color-changing umbrella featuring lyrics from Mobb Deep and Missy Elliott; a grocery tote depicting music video stills — that’s stocked by stores around the globe.
But Brown did not have a typical designer’s childhood filled with trips to art galleries and museums. Growing up in a strict household in Toronto, he rebelled after his parents’ divorce, landing in a group home at 14 and then in a foster home until he was 19. (He’s since reconciled with his parents, he said.) As he bounced around high schools without graduating, he started designing T-shirts.
He would eventually do a year at a design school, where his interest in fashion and hip-hop intensified. Diddy in particular had an outsized influence on him. “I studied every outfit, I studied every step, I studied every chain,” he said of the rap mogul. “Everything about him I studied. The cover art. The art direction. The jiggy, the shiny suits. He has so much to do with my outlook on aesthetics.”
In 2013, he and a friend started a pop-up vintage store, then came NEEDS & WANTS, a men’s sportswear brand from Brown and his partners. (The label’s varsity jacket landed in GQ.) Brown began working with the Canadian R&B singer Daniel Caesar on wardrobe styling, photography, graphic design and directing. Thus began a career in the music industry, where he’d handle design in various capacities for artists like SZA and Baby Keem.
Meanwhile, he released a number of design objects, including a throw blanket and a puzzle set. When the pandemic hit, “I was like, I don’t think it’s going to get normal anytime soon, so let me settle into this new apartment,” he said. “I need a rug, I need a coffee table. Then it just turned into home decor.” Curves recently issued the Archway Chair and Puddle Mirror.
At an interview in Brooklyn, New York, where he was shooting and interviewing subjects for a new biannual magazine, tentatively set to be released in early 2022, Brown spoke enthusiastically about making design accessible, the influence of the video director Hype Williams and Brown’s very short stint in Diddy’s universe. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: How do you define the Curves brand?
A: To encourage people to think about the space that they occupy or where they come from, how it looks, how it affects their quality of life. A contemporary take on everyday objects. The starting point usually has cultural nuances. I’m always injecting culture into it. Black culture, Black music, Black art — always celebrating that. The other part about Curves is making design accessible to the people who need to be introduced to design.
Q: So far, most people know you for those rugs that look like CDs. Any worry that they will overshadow your newer work?
A: It’s important to always keep doing things that people care about and to keep creative and to keep curious. That’s why I was like, yo, let’s do mirrors, let’s do incense hands, let’s do shelving, let’s do chairs. It’s almost like a hit song. Once you get three hit songs, people know you’re here to stay.
Q: What is the process from idea to physical product?
A: So it’s like, OK, I really want to do a puddle mirror and then Iva Golubovic [his manager and a co-owner and creative producer of Curves] will be like, ‘I feel you, slow down.’ Then she’ll go and find someone like a manufacturer who can do the thing and just work through it with them, the technical aspect, and then bring in an engineer.
Now we linked up with these guys who are our mill workers and they’re just as passionate as we are. And now we’re going to go full-blown into furniture at this point, like bed heads, tables.
Q: You collect vintage magazines like Vibe. Why do you like print so much?
A: Starting to own media, by way of the internet, I didn’t have to go to a library and open up books anymore. But then once my brain felt like the information was too overloaded, that’s when I wanted to dial it back, start being like, remember all the magazines you used to collect? Remember all the tangible data where you could just flip through? I was a liner notes kid, you know what I mean? So I think that that’s getting lost right now, heavily. People’s reference points and their research is very shallow. I have the physical data of history to be able to go back to these magazines and be like, yo, there was a time Foxy Brown [was] in the Calvin Klein ad or Erykah Badu for Gap. I have all of it. The tangible, beyond Tumblr.
Q: Where else do you turn for inspiration?
A: Old music, old movies, old commercials, old media, but only to reference and not copy. Like, how can I reimagine this thing? Still Tumblr, honestly. Tumblr is like my collection of media in digital form. It doesn’t come with the social aspect of social media. You can just be on there, in your own world, dictating your own tastes, whatever you want to see.
Q: You also seem to have a real affinity for the director Hype Williams, who made his name making music videos for artists like Missy Elliott, Busta Rhymes and the Notorious B.I.G. in the 1990s.
A: Him and [artist and filmmaker] Kahlil Joseph, they can take something like the hood or like a housing project and make it look so beautiful. They make it look like high art. I was watching as a child without knowing the political side of it, like how the government takes these people who are disenfranchised and throws them in a housing project. But then out of it you get a genre like hip-hop. That’s why when I think through design, I always aim to celebrate Blackness because a lot of it is birthed out of disparity. We’re given these [expletive] circumstances and then we can make something so beautiful out of it.
You can see the lineage from a Hype, who was so influenced by Stanley Kubrick. You can see connections if you watch [“2001: A Space Odyssey.”] You can see Missy Elliott and Busta videos in a lot of that, if you’re really paying attention. But obviously Stanley Kubrick wasn’t coming from a housing project in New York. And that is the missing link. There have to be people in history who can make connections. I’m always at the intersection of things.
Q: You contributed creative direction to Diddy’s Combs Enterprises for only eight months, before parting ways.
A: I was 34. I wasn’t a kid who was looking for an opportunity; I wasn’t trying to be an intern. I knew who I was and I was there to tell the truth. And what I believe was the intent to protect his creative and to take his creative to another level. Once we realized that that wasn’t sustainable, I just couldn’t go along with the program of being a yes man, I just wasn’t going to do it. The truth is, for a person who wants things done a certain way and wants everyone to go along with the program, I’m a cancer to all that. I have to be honest. If that meant losing a gig with him, then so be it. The next day I went right back to wearing Sean John. [A spokeswoman for Combs Enterprises declined to comment.]
Q: You don’t seem bitter.
A: No. Look where I’m coming from — I’m the little foster kid.
Q: How much do you think Instagram is shaping how we’re designing our homes, and is that good or bad?
A: It’s why I love Tumblr, because it’s the media without the social, so you could pick apart inspiration, download it, be inspired by things, decorate your home off that and there’s no pressure of the social community. Instagram is like the same thing: You have access to information overload, seeing everyone decorate their homes, but now you’re under pressure because, like, who likes it? I just think the social part of things is bad, but I don’t think the sharing part is bad.
I think it’s great that you could see into so many people’s homes. I think that’s fire.
Q: That could be an added layer of pressure, because so much homeware is expensive. A millennial person could think, “I want to show off my house, but I can’t afford all that.” There’s a class boundary and a level of insecurity that comes up for some people.
A: Start small. You ain’t got to have the large three-way couch. Start with a shower curtain. The CD rugs.
Q: Is there a dollar amount that equals success for you?
A: Not a dollar amount, but I would say enough, enough provision. So that I’m content in a sense where I’m not trying to be filthy rich. I don’t need to own a basketball team, but I like nice things. I want to be able to provide for my family. I want to be able to put money away. I want to be able to give things back. It has to do with the word completion, being complete, feeling complete, completing the mission, being your complete self.